'True Grit': True Beauty
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
First things first: "True Grit" is a great night out at the movies. A genuine, rip-roaring, no-nonsense Western with a thoroughly engaging storyline, incredibly vivid characters, consistently peppery dialogue, nerve-wracking suspense, thrilling action, a functioning brain and a big, and again genuine, heart, it is very good for what ails the contemporary moviegoer who misses all those qualities in current Hollywood fare. And is huge fun to boot. But the picture is also something more than that, something I myself was not prepared for.
Much has been made in some journalistic and internet circles about the fact that this story, based on a novel by the celebrated writer Charles Portis, has been filmed before (in fact it's been filmed -- sort of -- twice before, but we'll get to that in a moment), in a now-classic film starring the legendary John Wayne as lovable reprobate lawman Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn. His portrayal of the Western-hero-on-his-last-legs drew a special poignancy from the fact that movie icon Wayne himself was getting on, and the role won the actor, who'd long been both ridiculed and lauded for his seemingly limited thespic chops, an Academy Award. That Joel and Ethan Coen, the moviemaking brothers whose virtuosic cinematic pranksmanship is leavened, in the eyes of some, by more ostensibly serious efforts such as "Fargo" and "No Country For Old Men," chose to take on the story raised even more eyebrows. Were the boys aiming to compete with, or even dis, The Duke?
Having now seen the new movie, I think it's kind of a bad idea, however logical it may seem, to use the 1969 "True Grit" as a yardstick against which to measure this film. For one thing, the Coen's "True Grit" is not just a different film than the more classical Henry Hathaway-directed one; it's a different idea of a film than that one. I referred to it as a "genuine" Western above; that is, among other things, as opposed to "old-fashioned." Which is not to say that the Coen's are here sending up the genre; this is in fact the least smirky film they've ever made, including the monumental "No Country For Old Men" (the smirk factor in that film being rather evident in Javier Bardem's haircut). In sticking close to the Portis novel -- condensing it a bit, and softening some of its nastier edges here and there, to be sure, but largely sticking with it -- the Coens have crafted something both reverent and slightly sardonic, a film rich in big, Biblical themes and quotidian detail. Beginning with a gorgeously impressionistic shot of a murder scene, it immediately establishes its 14-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), as a terminally determined girl, hell-bent on getting justice in the name of her slain father. To this end she, against the counsel of nearly every adult she encounters, enlists the drunken, misanthropic, trigger-happy Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Along with a slightly silly Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), they pursue the dastardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) into Indian territory, finding all manner of oft-eccentric unpleasantness along the way.
It's a pretty classic pursuit story, which finds its value in the details. The Coens' script reproduces huge swaths of dialogue from the Portis book, and it's a pleasure to hear it interpreted by the cast. One doesn't find words such as "remonstrated" in a lot of Hollywood films these days (one didn't in the old days, either, truth to tell), and when Damon gets to utter it, you can almost see the actor's pleasure in having been asked to do so. Jeff Bridges has a scraggly beard and red nose and a habit of talking out the side of his mouth that brings to mind W.C. Fields, and an endearing way of drawling the characters inadvertent catchphrases, as in "I do not know him," when asked to identify someone he's just shot dead. But while Wayne's Cogburn was merely a sot in need of redemption, this Cogburn is something different, and more vexatious. (The third Cogburn, incidentally, was Warren Oates, in a 1978 TV movie of "True Grit" that took off from the film's story and put Rooster and Mattie on another adventure. Wayne went on to reprise his character in 1975's "Rooster Cogburn," with Katharine Hepburn.) A man with a very checkered past -- when the name "Quantrill" is mentioned, and Cogburn obstinately defends this figure in an argument with LaBeouf, it's up to the Civil War mavens in the audience to connect the dots, and when they do, they'll get a clear, and disturbing, picture of this man -- very probably a war criminal if not a murderer. But one who eventually achieves a kind of heroism in spite of himself.
Mattie herself is something of an odd duck. Her determination and courage are awe-inspiring, but Steinfeld shows us the real vulnerability behind these qualities, a vulnerability that all the adults around her actually ignore while seeming to take for granted. It's easy to see how her valorous qualities can grow brittle if nobody looks after her tender side, and ... well, now I'm saying too much.
This is a visually and sonically beautiful movie (Carter Burwell's score, drawing from themes from American folk music of the ear, is one of his greatest) that uses space, distance and time to immerse you in a very particular world of mystery, awe, and brutality. And in its last quarter, it rockets beyond that into another realm altogether, a realm of cinematic poetry. The night ride undertaken by two of the film's main characters near the end is one of the most thrilling and unusual scenes directed by the brothers. If their "Raising Arizona" showed the boys to be inheritors of Tex Avery, the finale of "True Grit" shows them as inheritors of F.W. Murnau as well. Nicely played, fellas.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.